"That burglary's my lay," said Gerald; "I'll detect that. Here comes Johnson," he added; "he's going off duty. Ask him about it. The fell detective, being invisible, was unable to pump the constable, but the young brother of our hero made the inquiries in quite a creditable manner. Be creditable, Jimmy."
Jimmy hailed the constable.
"Halloa, Johnson!" he said.
And Johnson replied: "Halloa, young shaver!"
"Shaver yourself!" said Jimmy, but without malice.
"What are you doing this time of night?" the constable asked jocosely. "All the dicky birds is gone to their little nesteses."
"We've been to the fair," said Kathleen. "There was a conjurer there. I wish you could have seen him."
"Heard about him," said Johnson; "all fake, you know. The quickness of the 'and deceives the hi."
Such is fame. Gerald, standing in the shadow, jingled the loose money in his pocket to console himself.
"What's that?" the policeman asked quickly.
"Our money jingling," said Jimmy, with perfect truth.
"It's well to be some people," Johnson remarked; "wish I'd got my pockets full to jingle with."
"Well, why haven't you?" asked Mabel. "Why don't you get that twenty pounds reward?"
"I'll tell you why I don't. Because in this "ere realm of liberty, and Britannia ruling the waves, you ain't allowed to arrest a chap on suspicion, even if you know puffickly well who done the job."
"What a shame!" said Jimmy warmly. "And who do you think did it?"
"I don't think I know." Johnson's voice was ponderous as his boots. "It's a man what's known to the police on account of a heap o crimes he's done, but we never can't bring it "ome to "im, nor yet get sufficient evidence to convict."
"Well, said Jimmy, "when I've left school I'll come to you and be apprenticed, and be a detective. Just now I think we'd better get home and detect our supper. Good night!"
They watched the policeman's broad form disappear through the swing door of the police-station; and as it settled itself into quiet again the voice of Gerald was heard complaining bitterly.
"You've no more brains than a halfpenny bun," he said; "no details about how and when the silver was taken."
"But he told us he knew," Jimmy urged.
"Yes, that's all you've got out of him. A silly policeman's silly idea. Go home and detect your precious supper! It's all you're fit for."
"What'll you do about supper?" Mabel asked.
"Buns!" said Gerald, "halfpenny buns. They'll make me think of my dear little brother and sister. Perhaps you've got enough sense to buy buns? I can't go into a shop in this state."
"Don't you be so disagreeable," said Mabel with spirit.
"We did our best. If I were Cathy you should whistle for your nasty buns."
"If you were Cathy the gallant young detective would have left home long ago. Better the cabin of a tramp steamer than the best family mansion that's got a brawling sister in it," said Gerald. "You are a bit of an outsider at present, my gentle maiden. Jimmy and Cathy know well enough when their bold leader is chaffing and when he isn't.
"Not when we can't see your face we don't," said Cathy, in tones of relief. "I really thought you were in a flaring wax, and so did Jimmy, didn't you?"
"Oh, rot!" said Gerald. "Come on! This way to the bun shop."
They went, And it was while Cathy and Jimmy were in the shop and the others were gazing through the glass at the jam tarts and Swiss rolls and Victoria sandwiches and Bath buns under the spread yellow muslin in the window, that Gerald discoursed in Mabel's ear of the plans and hopes of one entering on a detective career.
"I shall keep my eyes open tonight, I can tell you," he began. "I shall keep my eyes skinned, and no jolly error. The invisible detective may not only find out about the purse and the silver, but detect some crime that isn't even done yet. And I shall hang about until I see some suspicious-looking characters leave the town, and follow them furtively and catch them red-handed, with their hands full of priceless jewels, and hand them over."
"Oh!" cried Mabel, so sharply and suddenly that Gerald was roused from his dream to express sympathy.
"Pain?" he said quite kindly. "It's the apples they were rather hard."
"Oh, it's not that," said Mabel very earnestly. "Oh, how awful! I never thought of that before."
"Never thought of what?" Gerald asked impatiently.
"The panelled-room window. At home, you know at the castle. That settles it I must go home. We left it open and the shutters as well, and all the jewels and things there. Auntie'll never go in; she never does. That settles it; I must go home now this minute."
Here the others issued from the shop, bun-bearing, and the situation was hastily explained to them.
"So you see I must go," Mabel ended.
And Kathleen agreed that she must.
But Jimmy said he didn't see what good it would do. "Because the key's inside the door, anyhow."
"She will be cross," said Mabel sadly. "She'll have to get the gardeners to get a ladder and "
"Hooray!" said Gerald. "Here's me! Nobler and more secret than gardeners or ladders was the invisible Jerry. I'll climb in at the window it's all ivy, I know I could and shut the window and the shutters all sereno, put the key back on the nail, and slip out unperceived the back way, threading my way through the maze of unconscious retainers. There'll be plenty of time. I don't suppose burglars begin their fell work until the night is far advanced."
"Won't you be afraid?" Mabel asked. "Will it be safe suppose you were caught?"
"As houses. I can't be," Gerald answered, and wondered that the question came from Mabel and not from Kathleen, who was usually inclined to fuss a little annoyingly about the danger and folly of adventures.
But all Kathleen said was, "Well, good-bye; we'll come and see you tomorrow, Mabel. The floral temple at half-past ten. I hope you won't get into an awful row about the motor-car lady."
"Let's detect our supper now," said Jimmy.
"All right," said Gerald a little bitterly. It is hard to enter on an adventure like this and to find the sympathetic interest of years suddenly cut off at the meter, as it were. Gerald felt that he ought, at a time like this, to have been the centre of interest. And he wasn't. They could actually talk about supper. Well, let them. He didn't care! He spoke with sharp sternness: "Leave the pantry window undone for me to get in by when I've done my detecting. Come on, Mabel." He caught her hand. "Bags I the buns, though," he added, by a happy afterthought, and snatching the bag, pressed it on Mabel, and the sound of four boots echoed on the pavement of the High Street as the outlines of the running Mabel grew small with distance.
Mademoiselle was in the drawing-room. She was sitting by the window in the waning light reading letters.
"Ah, vous voici!" she said unintelligibly. "You are again late; and my little Gerald, where is he?"
This was an awful moment. Jimmy's detective scheme had not included any answer to this inevitable question. The silence was unbroken till Jimmy spoke.
"He said he was going to bed because he had a headache." And this, of course, was true.
"This poor Gerald!" said Mademoiselle. "Is it that I should mount him some supper?"
"He never eats anything when he's got one of his headaches," Kathleen said. And this also was the truth.
Jimmy and Kathleen Went to bed, wholly untroubled by anxiety about their brother, and Mademoiselle pulled out the bundle of letters and read them amid the ruins of the simple supper.
"It is ripping being out late like this," said Gerald through the soft summer dusk.
"Yes," said Mabel, a solitary-looking figure plodding along the high-road. "I do hope auntie won't be very furious."
"Have another bun," suggested Gerald kindly, and a sociable munching followed.
It was the aunt herself who opened to a very pale and trembling Mabel the door which is appointed for the entrances and exits of the domestic staff at Yalding Towers. She looked over Mabel's head first, as if she expected to see someone taller. Then a very small voice said:
The aunt started back, then made a step towards Mabel.
"You naughty, naughty girl!" she cried angrily; "how could you give me such a fright? I've a good mind to keep you in bed for a week for this, miss. Oh, Mabel, thank Heaven you're safe!" And with that the aunt's arms went round Mabel and Mabel's round the aunt in such a hug as they had never met in before.
"But you didn't seem to care a bit this morning," said Mabel, when she had realized that her aunt really had been anxious, really was glad to have her safe home again.
"How do you know?"
"I was there listening. Don't be angry, auntie."
"I feel as if I could never be angry with you again, now I've got you safe," said the aunt surprisingly.
"But how was it?" Mabel asked.
"My dear," said the aunt impressively, "I've been in a sort of trance. I think I must be going to be ill. I've always been fond of you, but I didn't want to spoil you. But yesterday, about half-past three, I was talking about you to Mr. Lewson, at the fair, and quite suddenly I felt as if you didn't matter at all. And I felt the same when I got your letter and when those children came. And today in the middle of tea I suddenly woke up and realized that you were gone. It was awful. I think I must be going to be ill. Oh, Mabel, why did you do it?"
"It was a joke," said Mabel feebly. And then the two went in and the door was shut.
"That's most uncommon odd," said Gerald, outside; "looks like more magic to me. I don't feel as if we d got to the bottom of this yet, by any manner of means. There's more about this castle than meets the eye."
There certainly was. For this castle happened to be but it would not be fair to Gerald to tell you more about it than he knew on that night when he went alone and invisible through the shadowy great grounds of it to look for the open window of the panelled room. He knew that night no more than I have told you; but as he went along the dewy lawns and through the groups of shrubs and trees, where pools lay like giant looking-glasses reflecting the quiet stars, and the white limbs of statues gleamed against a background of shadow, he began to feel well, not excited, not surprised, not anxious, but different.
The incident of the invisible Princess had surprised, the incident of the conjuring had excited, and the sudden decision to be a detective had brought its own anxieties; but all these happenings, though wonderful and unusual, had seemed to be, after all, inside the circle of possible things wonderful as the chemical experiments are where two liquids poured together make fire, surprising as legerdemain, thrilling as a juggler's display, but nothing more. Only now a new feeling came to him as he walked through those gardens; by day those gardens were like dreams, at night they were like visions. He could not see his feet as he walked, but he saw the movement of the dewy grass-blades that his feet displaced. And he had that extraordinary feeling so difficult to describe, and yet so real and so unforgettable the feeling that he was in another world, that had covered up and hidden the old world as a carpet covers a floor. The floor was there all right, underneath, but what he walked on was the carpet that covered it and that carpet was drenched in magic, as the turf was drenched in dew.
The feeling was very wonderful; perhaps you will feel it some day. There are still some places in the world where it can be felt, but they grow fewer every year.
The enchantment of the garden held him.
"I'll not go in yet," he told himself; "it's too early. And perhaps I shall never be here at night again. I suppose it is the night that makes everything look so different."
Something white moved under a weeping willow; white hands parted the long, rustling leaves. A white figure came out, a creature with horns and goat's legs and the head and arms of a boy. And Gerald was not afraid. That was the most wonderful thing of all, though he would never have owned it. The white thing stretched its limbs, rolled on the grass, righted itself and frisked away across the lawn. Still something white gleamed under the willow; three steps nearer and Gerald saw that it was the pedestal of a statue empty.
"They come alive," he said; and another white shape came out of the Temple of Flora and disappeared in the laurels. "The statues come alive."
There was a crunching of the little stones in the gravel of the drive. Something enormously long and darkly grey came crawling towards him, slowly, heavily. The moon came out just in time to show its shape. It was one of those great lizards that you see at the Crystal Palace, made in stone, of the same awful size which they were millions of years ago when they were masters of the world, before Man was.
"It can't see me," said Gerald. "I am not afraid. It's come to life, too."
As it writhed past him he reached out a hand and touched the side of its gigantic tail. It was of stone. It had not "come alive" as he had fancied, but was alive in its stone. It turned, however, at the touch; but Gerald also had turned, and was running with all his speed towards the house. Because at that stony touch Fear had come into the garden and almost caught him. It was Fear that he ran from, and not the moving stone beast.
He stood panting under the fifth window; when he had climbed to the window-ledge by the twisted ivy that clung to the wall, he looked back over the grey slope there was a splashing at the fish-pool that had mirrored the stars the shape of the great stone beast was wallowing in the shallows among the lily-pads.
Once inside the room, Gerald turned for another look. The fish-pond lay still and dark, reflecting the moon. Through a gap in the drooping willow the moonlight fell on a statue that stood calm and motionless on its pedestal. Everything was in its place now in the garden. Nothing moved or stirred.
"How extraordinarily rum!" said Gerald. "I shouldn't have thought you could go to sleep walking through a garden and dream like that."
He shut the window, lit a match, and closed the shutters. Another match showed him the door. He turned the key, went out, locked the door again, hung the key on its usual nail, and crept to the end of the passage. Here he waited, safe in his invisibility, till the dazzle of the matches should have gone from his eyes, and he be once more able to find his way by the moonlight that fell in bright patches on the floor through the barred, unshuttered windows of the hall.
"Wonder where the kitchen is," said Gerald. He had quite forgotten that he was a detective. He was only anxious to get home and tell the others about that extraordinarily odd dream that he had had in the gardens. "I suppose it doesn't matter what doors I open. I'm invisible all right still, I suppose? Yes; can't see my hand before my face." He held up a hand for the purpose. "Here goes!"
He opened many doors, wandered into long rooms with furniture dressed in brown holland covers that looked white in that strange light, rooms with chandeliers hanging in big bags from the high ceilings, rooms whose walls were alive with pictures, rooms whose walls were deadened with rows on rows of old books, state bedrooms in whose great plumed four-posters Queen Elizabeth had no doubt slept. (That Queen, by the way, must have been very little at home, for she seems to have slept in every old house in England.) But he could not find the kitchen. At last a door opened on stone steps that went up there was a narrow stone passage steps that went down a door with a light under it. It was, somehow, difficult to put out one's hand to that door and open it.
"Nonsense!" Gerald told himself, "don't be an ass! Are you invisible, or aren't you?"
Then he opened the door, and someone inside said something in a sudden rough growl.
Gerald stood back, flattened against the wall, as a man sprang to the doorway and flashed a lantern into the passage.
"All right," said the man, with almost a sob of relief. "It was only the door swung open, it's that heavy that's all."
"Blow the door!" said another growling voice; "blessed if I didn't think it was a fair cop that time."
They closed the door again. Gerald did not mind. In fact, he rather preferred that it should be so. He didn't like the look of those men. There was an air of threat about them. In their presence even invisibility seemed too thin a disguise. And Gerald had seen as much as he wanted to see. He had seen that he had been right about the gang. By wonderful luck beginner's luck, a card-player would have told him he had discovered a burglary on the very first night of his detective career. The men were taking silver out of two great chests, wrapping it in rags, and packing it in baize sacks. The door of the room was of iron six inches thick. It was, in fact, the strong-room, and these men had picked the lock. The tools they had done it with lay on the floor, on a neat cloth roll, such as wood-carvers keep their chisels in.
"Hurry up!" Gerald heard. "You needn't take all night over it."
The silver rattled slightly. "You're a rattling of them trays like bloomin' castanets," said the gruffest voice. Gerald turned and went away, very carefully and very quickly. And it is a most curious thing that, though he couldn't find the way to the servants wing when he had nothing else to think of, yet now, with his mind full, so to speak, of silver forks and silver cups, and the question of who might be coming after him down those twisting passages, he went straight as an arrow to the door that led from the hall to the place he wanted to get to.
As he went the happenings took words in his mind.
"The fortunate detective," he told himself, "having succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, himself left the spot in search of assistance."
But what assistance? There were, no doubt, men in the house, also the aunt; but he could not warn them.
He was too hopelessly invisible to carry any weight with strangers. The assistance of Mabel would not be of much value. The police? Before they could be got and the getting of them presented difficulties the burglars would have cleared away with their sacks of silver.
Gerald stopped and thought hard; he held his head with both hands to do it. You know the way the same as you sometimes do for simple equations or the dates of the battles of the Civil War.
Then with pencil, note-book, a window-ledge, and all the cleverness he could find at the moment, he wrote: "You know the room where the silver is. Burglars are burgling it, the thick door is picked. Send a man for police. I will follow the burglars if they get away ere police arrive on the spot."
He hesitated a moment, and ended "From a Friend this is not a sell."
This letter, tied tightly round a stone by means of a shoelace, thundered through the window of the room where Mabel and her aunt, in the ardour of reunion, were enjoying a supper of unusual charm stewed plums, cream, sponge-cakes, custard in cups, and cold bread-and-butter pudding.
Gerald, in hungry invisibility, looked wistfully at the supper before he threw the stone. He waited till the shrieks had died away, saw the stone picked up, the warning letter read.
"Nonsense!" said the aunt, growing calmer. "How wicked! Of course it's a hoax."
"Oh! do send for the police, like he says," wailed Mabel.
"Like who says?" snapped the aunt.
"Whoever it is," Mabel moaned.
"Send for the police at once," said Gerald, outside, in the manliest voice he could find. "You'll only blame yourself if you don t. I can't do any more for you."
"I I'll set the dogs on you!" cried the aunt.
"Oh, auntie, don't!" Mabel was dancing with agitation. "It's true I know it's true. Do do wake Bates!"
"I don't believe a word of it," said the aunt. No more did Bates when, owing to Mabel's persistent worryings, he was awakened. But when he had seen the paper, and had to choose whether he'd go to the strong-room and see that there really wasn't anything to believe or go for the police on his bicycle, he chose the latter course.
When the police arrived the strong-room door stood ajar, and the silver, or as much of it as the three men could carry, was gone.
Gerald's note-book and pencil came into play again later on that night. It was five in the morning before he crept into bed, tired out and cold as a stone.
"Master Gerald!" it was Eliza's voice in his ears "it's seven o clock and another fine day, and there's been another burglary My cats alive!" she screamed, as she drew up the blind and turned towards the bed; "look at his bed, all crocked with black, and him not there!" "Oh, Jiminy!" It was a scream this time. Kathleen came running from her room; Jimmy sat up in his bed and rubbed his eyes.
"Whatever is it?" Kathleen cried.
"I dunno when I 'ad such a turn. Eliza sat down heavily on a box as she spoke. "First thing his bed all empty and black as the chimley back, and him not in it, and then when I looks again he is in it all the time. I must be going silly. I thought as much when I heard them haunting angel voices yesterday morning. But I'll tell Mamselle of you, my lad, with your tricks, you may rely on that. Blacking yourself all over and crocking up your clean sheets and pillow-cases. It's going back of beyond, this is."
"Look here," said Gerald slowly; "I'm going to tell you something."
Eliza simply snorted, and that was rude of her; but then, she had had a shock and had not got over it.
"Can you keep a secret?" asked Gerald, very earnest through the grey of his partly rubbed-off blacklead.
"Yes," said Eliza.
"Then keep it and I'll give you two bob."
"But what was you going to tell me?"
"That. About the two bob and the secret. And you keep your mouth shut."
"I didn't ought to take it," said Eliza, holding out her hand eagerly. "Now you get up, and mind you wash all the corners, Master Gerald."
"Oh, I'm so glad you're safe," said Kathleen, when Eliza had gone.
"You didn't seem to care much last night," said Gerald coldly.
"I can't think how I let you go. I didn't care last night. But when I woke this morning and remembered!"
"There, that'll do it'll come off on you," said Gerald through the reckless hugging of his sister.
"How did you get visible?" Jimmy asked.
"It just happened when she called me the ring came off."
"Tell us all about everything," said Kathleen. "Not yet, said Gerald mysteriously.
"Where's the ring?" Jimmy asked after breakfast. "I want to have a try now."
"I I forgot it," said Gerald; "I expect it's in the bed somewhere.
But it wasn't. Eliza had made the bed.
"I'll swear there ain't no ring there," she said. "I should "a seen it if there had'a been."
"Search and research proving vain," said Gerald, when every corner of the bedroom had been turned out and the ring had not been found, "the noble detective hero of our tale remarked that he would have other fish to fry in half a jiff, and if the rest of you want to hear about last night..."
"Let's keep it till we get to Mabel," said Kathleen heroically.
"The assignation was ten-thirty, wasn't it? Why shouldn't Gerald gas as we go along? I don't suppose anything very much happened, anyhow." This, of course, was Jimmy.
"That shows," remarked Gerald sweetly, "how much you know. The melancholy Mabel will await the tryst without success, as far as this one is concerned." 'Fish, fish, other fish other fish I fry!'" he warbled to the tune of 'Cherry Ripe' , till Kathleen could have pinched him.
Jimmy turned coldly away, remarking, "When you've quite done."
But Gerald went on singing
"Where the lips of Johnson smile,
There's the land of Cherry Isle.
Other fish, other fish, Fish I fry.
Stately Johnson, come and buy!"
"How can you," asked Kathleen, "be so aggravating?"
"I don't know," said Gerald, returning to prose.
"Want of sleep or intoxication of success, I mean. Come where no one can hear us.
'Oh, come to some island where no one can hear,
And beware of the keyhole that's glued to an ear,'"
he whispered, opened the door suddenly, and there, sure enough, was Eliza, stooping without. She flicked feebly at the wainscot with a duster, but concealment was vain.
"You know what listeners never hear," said Jimmy severely.
"I didn't, then so there!" said Eliza, whose listening ears were crimson. So they passed out, and up the High Street, to sit on the churchyard wall and dangle their legs. And all the way Gerald's lips were shut into a thin, obstinate line.
"Now," said Kathleen. "Oh, Jerry, don't be a goat! I'm simply dying to hear what happened."
"That's better," said Gerald, and he told his story. As he told it some of the white mystery and magic of the moonlit gardens got into his voice and his words, so that when he told of the statues that came alive, and the great beast that was alive through all its stone, Kathleen thrilled responsive, clutching his arm, and even Jimmy ceased to kick the wall with his boot heels, and listened open-mouthed.
Then came the thrilling tale of the burglars, and the warning letter flung into the peaceful company of Mabel, her aunt, and the bread-and-butter pudding. Gerald told the story with the greatest enjoyment and such fullness of detail that the church clock chimed half-past eleven as he said, "Having done all that human agency could do, and further help being despaired of, our gallant young detective Hullo, there's Mabel!"
There was. The tail-board of a cart shed her almost at their feet.
"I couldn't wait any longer," she explained, "when you didn't come. And I got a lift. Has anything more happened?" The burglars had gone when Bates got to the strong-room.
"You don't mean to say all that wheeze is real?" Jimmy asked.
"Of course it's real," said Kathleen. "Go on, Jerry. He's just got to where he threw the stone into your bread-and-butter pudding, Mabel. Go on.
Mabel climbed on to the wall. "You've got visible again quicker than I did," she said.
Gerald nodded and resumed:
"Our story must be told in as few words as possible, owing to the fish-frying taking place at twelve, and it's past the half-hour now. Having left his missive to do its warning work, Gerald de Sherlock Holmes sped back, wrapped in invisibility, to the spot where by the light of their dark-lanterns the burglars were still still burgling with the utmost punctuality and despatch. I didn't see any sense in running into danger, so I just waited outside the passage where the steps are you know?"
"Presently they came out, very cautiously, of course, and looked about them. They didn't see me so deeming themselves unobserved they passed in silent Indian file along the passage one of the sacks of silver grazed my front part and out into the night."
"But which way?"
"Through the little looking-glass room where you looked at yourself when you were invisible. The hero followed swiftly on his invisible tennis-shoes. The three miscreants instantly sought the shelter of the groves and passed stealthily among the rhododendrons and across the park, and his voice dropped and he looked straight before him at the pinky convolvulus netting a heap of stones beyond the white dust of the road "the stone things that come alive, they kept looking out from between bushes and under trees and I saw them all right, but they didn't see me. They saw the burglars though, right enough; but the burglars couldn't see them. Rum, wasn't it?"
"The stone things?" Mabel had to have them explained to her.
"I never saw them come alive," she said, "and I've been in the gardens in the evening as often as often.
"I saw them," said Gerald stiffly.
"I know, I know," Mabel hastened to put herself right with him; "what I mean to say is I shouldn't wonder if they re only visible when you're invisible the liveness of them, I mean, not the stoniness."
Gerald understood, and I'm sure I hope you do.
"I shouldn't wonder if you're right," he said. "The castle garden's enchanted right enough; but what I should like to know is how and why. I say, come on, I've got to catch Johnson before twelve. We'll walk as far as the market and then we'll have to run for it."
"But go on with the adventure," said Mabel. "You can talk as we go." "Oh, do it is so awfully thrilling!"
This pleased Gerald, of course.
"Well, I just followed, you know, like in a dream, and they got out the cavy way you know, where we got in and I jolly well thought I d lost them; I had to wait till they'd moved off down the road so that they shouldn't hear me rattling the stones, and I had to tear to catch them up. I took my shoes off I expect my stockings are done for. And I followed and followed and followed and they went through the place where the poor people live, and right down to the river. And
I say, we must run for it."
So the story stopped and the running began.
They caught Johnson in his own back-yard washing at a bench against his own back-door.
"Look here, Johnson," Gerald said, "what'll you give me if I put you up to winning that fifty pounds reward?"
"Halves," said Johnson promptly, "and a clout 'long-side your head if you was coming any of your nonsense over me."
"It's not nonsense," said Gerald very impressively. "If you'll let us in I'll tell you all about it. And when you've caught the burglars and got the swag back you just give me a quid for luck. I won't ask for more."
"Come along in, then," said Johnson, "if the young ladies'll excuse the towel. But I bet you do want something more off of me. Else why not claim the reward yourself?"
"Great is the wisdom of Johnson he speaks winged words." The children were all in the cottage now, and the door was shut. "I want you never to let on who told you. Let them think it was your own unaided pluck and far-sightedness."
"Sit you down," said Johnson, "and if you're kidding you'd best send the little gells home afore I begin on you."
"I am not kidding," replied Gerald loftily, "never less. And anyone but a policeman would see why I don't want anyone to know it was me. I found it out at dead of night, in a place where I wasn't supposed to be; and there'd be a beastly row if they found out at home about me being out nearly all night. Now do you see, my bright-eyed daisy?"
Johnson was now too interested, as Jimmy said afterwards, to mind what silly names he was called. He said he did see and asked to see more.
"Well, don't you ask any questions, then. I'll tell you all it's good for you to know. Last night about eleven I was at Yalding Towers. No it doesn't matter how I got there or what I got there for and there was a window open and I got in, and there was a light. And it was in the strong-room, and there were three men, putting silver in a bag."
"Was it you give the warning, and they sent for the police?" Johnson was leaning eagerly forward, a hand on each knee.
"Yes, that was me. You can let them think it was you, if you like. You were off duty, weren't you?"
"I was," said Johnson, "in the arms of Murphy "
"Well, the police didn't come quick enough. But I was there a lonely detective. And I followed them."
"And I saw them hide the booty and I know the other stuff from Houghton's Court's in the same place, and I heard them arrange about when to take it away."
"Come and show me where," said Johnson, jumping up so quickly that his Windsor arm-chair fell over backwards, with a crack, on the red-brick floor.
"Not so," said Gerald calmly; "if you go near the spot before the appointed time you'll find the silver, but you'll never catch the thieves."
"You're right there." The policeman picked up his chair and sat down in it again. "Well?"
"Well, there's to be a motor to meet them in the lane beyond the boat-house by Sadler's Rents at one o clock tonight. They'll get the things out at half-past twelve and take them along in a boat. So now's your chance to fill your pockets with chink and cover yourself with honour and glory."
"So help me!" Johnson was pensive and doubtful still "So help me! you couldn't have made all this up out of your head."
"Oh yes, I could. But I didn't. Now look here. It's the chance of your lifetime, Johnson! A quid for me, and a still tongue for you, and the job's done. Do you agree?"
"Oh, I agree right enough," said Johnson. "I agree. But if you're coming any of your larks "
"Can't you see he isn't?" Kathleen put in impatiently. "He's not a liar we none of us are."
"If you're not on, say so," said Gerald, "and I'll find another policeman with more sense."
"I could split about you being out all night," said Johnson.
"But you wouldn't be so ungentlemanly," said Mabel brightly. "Don't you be so unbelieving, when we're trying to do you a good turn."
"If I were you," Gerald advised, "I'd go to the place where the silver is, with two other men. You could make a nice little ambush in the wood-yard it's close there. And I'd have two or three more men up trees in the lane to wait for the motor-car."
"You ought to have been in the force, you ought," said Johnson admiringly; "but s'pose it was a hoax!"
"Well, then you'd have made an ass of yourself I don't suppose it ud be the first time," said Jimmy.
"Are you on?" said Gerald in haste. "Hold your jaw, Jimmy, you idiot!"
"Yes," said Johnson.
"Then when you're on duty you go down to the wood-yard, and the place where you see me blow my nose is the place. The sacks are tied with string to the posts under the water. You just stalk by in your dignified beauty and make a note of the spot. That's where glory waits you, and when Fame elates you and you're a sergeant, please remember me."
Johnson said he was blessed. He said it more than once, and then remarked that he was on, and added that he must be off that instant minute.
Johnson's cottage lies just out of the town beyond the blacksmith's forge and the children had come to it through the wood. They went back the same way, and then down through the town, and through its narrow, unsavoury streets to the towing-path by the timber yard. Here they ran along the trunks of the big trees, peeped into the saw-pit, and the men were away at dinner and this was a favourite play place of every boy within miles made themselves a see-saw with a fresh cut, sweet-smelling pine plank and an elm-root.
"What a ripping place!" said Mabel, breathless on the seesaw's end. "I believe I like this better than pretending games or even magic."
"So do I," said Jimmy. "Jerry, don't keep sniffing so you'll have no nose left."
"I can't help it," Gerald answered; "I daren't use my hankey for fear Johnson's on the lookout somewhere unseen. I wish I'd thought of some other signal." Sniff! "No, nor I shouldn't want to now if I hadn't got not to. That's what's so rum. The moment I got down here and remembered what I'd said about the signal I began to have a cold and Thank goodness! here he is."
The children, with a fine air of unconcern, abandoned the see-saw. "Follow my leader!" Gerald cried, and ran along a barked oak trunk, the others following. In and out and round about ran the file of children, over heaps of logs, under the jutting ends of piled planks, and just as the policeman's heavy boots trod the towing-path Gerald halted at the end of a little landing-stage of rotten boards, with a rickety handrail, cried "Pax!" and blew his nose with loud fervour.
"Morning," he said immediately.
"Morning," said Johnson. "Got a cold, ain't you?"
"Ah! I shouldn't have a cold if I'd got boots like yours," returned Gerald admiringly. "Look at them. Anyone ud know your fairy footstep a mile off. How do you ever get near enough to anyone to arrest them?" He skipped off the landing-stage, whispered as he passed Johnson, "Courage, promptitude, and dispatch. That's the place," and was off again, the active leader of an active procession.
"We've brought a friend home to dinner," said Kathleen, when Eliza opened the door. "Where's Mademoiselle?"
"Gone to see Yalding Towers. Today's show day, you know. An just you hurry over your dinners. It's my afternoon out, and my gentleman friend don't like it if he's kept waiting."
"All right, we'll eat like lightning," Gerald promised. "Set another place, there's an angel."
They kept their word. The dinner it was minced veal and potatoes and rice-pudding, perhaps the dullest food in the world was over in a quarter of an hour.
"And now," said Mabel, when Eliza and a jug of hot water had disappeared up the stairs together, "where's the ring? I ought to put it back."
"I haven't had a turn yet," said Jimmy. "When we find it Cathy and I ought to have turns same as you and Gerald did."
"When you find it ?" Mabel's pale face turned paler between her dark locks.
"I'm very sorry we're all very sorry," began Kathleen, and then the story of the losing had to be told.
"You couldn't have looked properly," Mabel protested. "It can't have vanished."
"You don't know what it can do no more do we. It's no use getting your quills up, fair lady. Perhaps vanishing itself is just what it does do. You see, it came off my hand in the bed. We looked everywhere."
"Would you mind if I looked?" Mabel's eyes implored her little hostess. "You see, if it's lost it's my fault. It's almost the same as stealing. That Johnson would say it was just the same. I know he would."
"Let's all look again," said Cathy, jumping up. "We were rather in a hurry this morning."
So they looked, and they looked. In the bed, under the bed, under the carpet, under the furniture. They shook the curtains, they explored the corners, and found dust and flue, but no ring. They looked, and they looked. Everywhere they looked. Jimmy even looked fixedly at the ceiling, as though he thought the ring might have bounced up there and stuck. But it hadn't.
"Then," said Mabel at last, "your housemaid must have stolen it. That's all. I shall tell her I think so."
And she would have done it too, but at that moment the front door banged and they knew that Eliza had gone forth in all the glory of her best things to meet her "gentleman friend" .
"It's no use," Mabel was almost in tears; "look here will you leave me alone? Perhaps you others looking distracts me. And I'll go over every inch of the room by myself."
"Respecting the emotion of their guest, the kindly charcoal-burners withdrew," said Gerald. And they closed the door softly from the outside on Mabel and her search.
They waited for hers of course politeness demanded it, and besides, they had to stay at home to let Mademoiselle in; though it was a dazzling day, and Jimmy had just remembered that Gerald's pockets were full of the money earned at the fair, and that nothing had yet been bought with that money, except a few buns in which he had had no share. And of course they waited impatiently.
It seemed about an hour, and was really quite ten minutes, before they heard the bedroom door open and Mabel's feet on the stairs.
"She hasn't found it," Gerald said.
"How do you know?" Jimmy asked.
"The way she walks," said Gerald. You can, in fact, almost always tell whether the thing has been found that people have gone to look for by the sound of their feet as they return. Mabel's feet said "No go" as plain as they could speak. And her face confirmed the cheerless news.
A sudden and violent knocking at the back door prevented anyone from having to be polite about how sorry they were, or fanciful about being sure the ring would turn up soon.
All the servants except Eliza were away on their holidays, so the children went together to open the door, because, as Gerald said, if it was the baker they could buy a cake from him and eat it for dessert. "That kind of dinner sort of needs dessert," he said.
But it was not the baker, When they opened the
door they saw in the paved court where the pump is, and the dust-bin, and the water-butt, a young man, with his hat very much on one side, his mouth open under his fair bristly mustache, and his eyes as nearly round as human eyes can be. He wore a suit of a bright mustard colour, a blue necktie, and a goldish watch-chain across his waistcoat. His body was thrown back and his right arm stretched out towards the door, and his expression was that of a person who is being dragged somewhere against his will. He looked so strange that Kathleen tried to shut the door in his face, murmuring, "Escaped insane." But the door would not close. There was something in the way.
"Leave go of me!" said the young man.
"Ho yus! I'll leave go of you!" It was the voice of Eliza but no Eliza could be seen.
"Who's got hold of you?" asked Kathleen.
"She has, miss," replied the unhappy stranger.
"Who's she?" asked Kathleen, to gain time, as she afterwards explained, for she now knew well enough that what was keeping the door open was Eliza's unseen foot.
"My fyongsay, miss. At least it sounds like her voice, and it feels like her bones, but something's come over me, miss, an I can't see her."
"That's what he keeps on saying," said Eliza's voice. "E's my gentleman friend; is 'e gone dotty, or is it me?"
"Both, I shouldn't wonder," said Jimmy.
"Now," said Eliza, "you call yourself a man; you look me in the face and say you can't see me."
"Well I can't," said the wretched gentleman friend.
"If I'd stolen a ring," said Gerald, looking at the sky, "I should go indoors and be quiet, not stand at the back door and make an exhibition of myself."
"Not much exhibition about her," whispered Jimmy; "good old ring!"
"I haven't stolen anything," said the gentleman friend. "Here, you leave me be. It's my eyes has gone wrong. Leave go of me, d'ye hear?"
Suddenly his hand dropped and he staggered back against the water-butt. Eliza had "left go" of him. She pushed past the children, shoving them aside with her invisible elbows. Gerald caught her by the arm with one hand, felt for her ear with the other, and whispered, "You stand still and don't say a word. If you do well, what's to stop me from sending for the police?"
Eliza did not know what there was to stop him. So she did as she was told, and stood invisible and silent, save for a sort of blowing, snorting noise peculiar to her when she was out of breath.
The mustard-coloured young man had recovered his balance, and stood looking at the children with eyes, if possible, rounder than before.
"What is it?" he gasped feebly. "What's up? What's it all about?"
"If you don't know, I'm afraid we can't tell you," said Gerald politely.
"Have I been talking very strange-like?" he asked, taking off his hat and passing his hand over his forehead.
"Very," said Mabel.
"I hope I haven't said anything that wasn't good manners," he said anxiously.
"Not at all," said Kathleen. "You only said your fiancee had hold of your hand, and that you couldn't see her."
"No more I can."
"No more can we," said Mabel.
"But I couldn't have dreamed it, and then come along here making a penny show of myself like this, could I?"
"You know best," said Gerald courteously.
"But," the mustard-coloured victim almost screamed, "do you mean to tell me..."
"I don't mean to tell you anything," said Gerald quite truly, "but I'll give you a bit of advice. You go home and lie down a bit and put a wet rag on your head. You'll be all right tomorrow."
"But I haven't "
"I should," said Mabel; "the sun's very hot, you know."
"I feel all right now," he said, "but well, I can only say I'm sorry, that's all I can say. I've never been taken like this before, miss. I'm not subject to it don't you think that. But I could have sworn Eliza Ain't she gone out to meet me?"
"Eliza's in-doors," said Mabel. "She can't come out to meet anybody today."
"You won't tell her about me carrying on this way, will you, miss? It might set her against me if she thought I was liable to fits, which I never was from a child."
"We won't tell Eliza anything about you."
"And you'll overlook the liberty?"
"Of course. We know you couldn't help it," said Kathleen. "You go home and lie down. I'm sure you must need it. Good afternoon."
"Good afternoon, I'm sure, miss," he said dreamily. "All the same I can feel the print of her finger-bones on my hand while I'm saying it. And you won't let it get round to my boss my employer I mean? Fits of all sorts are against a man in any trade."
"No, no, no, it's all right good-bye," said everyone. And a silence fell as he went slowly round the water-butt and the green yard-gate shut behind him. The silence was broken by Eliza.
"Give me up!" she said. "Give me up to break my heart in a prison cell!"
There was a sudden splash, and a round wet drop lay on the doorstep.
"Thunder shower," said Jimmy; but it was a tear from Eliza.
"Give me up," she went on, "give me up" splash "but don't let me be took here in the town where I'm known and respected" splash. "I'll walk ten miles to be took by a strange police not Johnson as keeps company with my own cousin" splash. "But I do thank you for one thing. You didn't tell Elf as I'd stolen the ring. And I didn't splash I only sort of borrowed it, it being my day out, and my gentleman friend such a toff, like you can see for yourselves."
The children had watched, spellbound, the interesting tears that became visible as they rolled off the invisible nose of the miserable Eliza. Now Gerald roused himself, and spoke.
"It's no use your talking," he said. "We can't see you!"
"That's what he said," said Eliza's voice, "but "
"You can't see yourself," Gerald went on. "Where's your hand?"
Eliza, no doubt, tried to see it, and of course failed; for instantly, with a shriek that might have brought the police if there had been any about, she went into a violent fit of hysterics. The children did what they could, everything that they had read of in books as suitable to such occasions, but it is extremely difficult to do the right thing with an invisible housemaid in strong hysterics and her best clothes. That was why the best hat was found, later on, to be completely ruined, and why the best blue dress was never quite itself again. And as they were burning bits of the feather dusting-brush as nearly under Eliza's nose as they could guess, a sudden spurt of flame and a horrible smell, as the flame died between the quick hands of Gerald, showed but too plainly that Eliza's feather boa had tried to help.
It did help. Eliza "came to" with a deep sob and said, "Don't burn me real ostrich stole; I'm better now."
They helped her up and she sat down on the bottom step, and the children explained to her very carefully and quite kindly that she really was invisible, and that if you steal or even borrow rings you can never be sure what will happen to you.
"But 'ave I got to go on stopping like this," she moaned, when they had fetched the little mahogany looking-glass from its nail over the kitchen sink, and convinced her that she was really invisible, "for ever and ever? An we was to a bin married come Easter. No one won't marry a gell as 'e can't see. It ain't likely."
"No, not for ever and ever," said Mabel kindly, "but you've got to go through with it like measles. I expect you'll be all right tomorrow."
"Tonight, I think," said Gerald.
"We'll help you all we can, and not tell anyone," said Kathleen.
"Not even the police," said Jimmy.
"Now let's get Mademoiselle's tea ready," said Gerald.
"And ours," said Jimmy.
"No," said Gerald, "we'll have our tea out. We'll have a picnic and we'll take Eliza. I'll go out and get the cakes." "I sha'n't eat no cake, Master Jerry," said Eliza's voice, "so don't you think it. You'd see it going down inside my chest. It wouldn't he what I should call nice of me to have cake showing through me in the open air. Oh, it's a dreadful judgment just for a borrow!"
They reassured her, set the tea, deputed Kathleen to let in Mademoiselle who came home tired and a little sad, it seemed waited for her and Gerald and the cakes, and started off for Yalding Towers.
"Picnic parties aren't allowed," said Mabel.
"Ours will be," said Gerald briefly. "Now, Eliza, you catch on to Kathleen's arm and I'll walk behind to conceal your shadow. My aunt! take your hat off; it makes your shadow look like I don't know what. People will think we're the county lunatic asylum turned loose."
It was then that the hat, becoming visible in Kathleen's hand, showed how little of the sprinkled water had gone where it was meant to go on Eliza's face.
"Me best 'at," said Eliza, and there was a silence with sniffs in it.
"Look here," said Mabel, "you cheer up. Just you think this is all a dream. It's just the kind of thing you might dream if your conscience bad got pains in it about the ring."
"But will I wake up again?"
"Oh yes, you'll wake up again. Now we're going to bandage your eyes and take you through a very small door, and don't you resist, or we'll bring a policeman into the dream like a shot."
I have not time to describe Eliza's entrance into the cave. She went head first: the girls propelled and the boys received her. If Gerald had not thought of tying her hands someone would certainly have been scratched. As it was Mabel's hand was scraped between the cold rock and a passionate boot-heel. Nor will I tell you all that she said as they led her along the fern-bordered gully and through the arch into the wonderland of Italian scenery. She had but little language left when they removed her bandage under a weeping willow where a statue of Diana, bow in hand, stood poised on one toe a most unsuitable attitude for archery, I have always thought.
"Now," said Gerald, "it's all over nothing but niceness now and cake and things."
"It's time we did have our tea," said Jimmy. And it was.
Eliza, once convinced that her chest, though invisible, was not transparent, and that her companions could not by looking through it count how many buns she had eaten, made an excellent meal. So did the others. If you want really to enjoy your tea, have minced veal and potatoes and rice-pudding for dinner, with several hours of excitement to follow, and take your tea late.
The soft, cool green and grey of the garden were changing the green grew golden, the shadows black, and the lake where the swans were mirrored upside down, under the Temple of Phoebus, was bathed in rosy light from the little fluffy clouds that lay opposite the Sunset.
"It is pretty," said Eliza, "just like a picture-postcard, ain't it? the tuppenny kind."
"I ought to be getting home," said Mabel.
"I can't go home like this. I'd stay and be a savage and live in that white hut if it had any walls and doors," said Eliza.
"She means the Temple of Dionysus," said Mabel, pointing to it.
The sun set suddenly behind the line of black fir-trees on the top of the slope, and the white temple, that had been pink, turned grey.
"It would be a very nice place to live in even as it is," said Kathleen.
"Draughty," said Eliza, "and law, what a lot of steps to clean! What they make houses for without no walls to 'em? Who'd live in," She broke off, stared, and added: "What's that?"
"That white thing coming down the steps. Why, it's a young man in statooary."
"The statues do come alive here, after sunset," said Gerald in very matter-of-fact tones.
"I see they do." Eliza did not seem at all surprised or alarmed. "There's another of 'em. Look at them little wings to his feet like pigeons."
"I expect that's Mercury," said Gerald.
"It's 'Hermes' under the statue that's got wings on its feet, said Mabel, "but "
"1 don't see any statues," said Jimmy. "What are you punching me for?"
"Don't you see?" Gerald whispered; but he need not have been so troubled, for all Eliza's attention was with her wandering eyes that followed hither and thither the quick movements of unseen statues. "Don't you see? The statues come alive when the sun goes down and you can't see them unless you're invisible
and I if you do see them you're not frightened unless you touch them."
"Let's get her to touch one and see," said Jimmy.
"E's lep into the water," said Eliza in a rapt voice. "My, can't he swim neither! And the one with the pigeons wings is flying all over the lake having larks with 'im. I do call that pretty. It's like cupids as you see on wedding-cakes. And here's another of 'em, a little chap with long ears and a baby deer galloping alongside! An look at the lady with the biby, throwing it up and catching it like as if it was a ball. I wonder she ain't afraid. But it's pretty to see 'em."
The broad park lay stretched before the children in growing greyness and a stillness that deepened. Amid the thickening shadows they could see the statues gleam white and motionless. But Eliza saw other things. She watched in silence presently, and they watched silently, and the evening fell like a veil that grew heavier and blacker. And it was night. And the moon came up above the trees.
"Oh," cried Eliza suddenly, "here's the dear little boy with the deer he's coming right for me, bless his heart!"
Next moment she was screaming, and her screams grew fainter and there was the sound of swift boots on gravel.
"Come on!" cried Gerald; "she touched it, and then she was frightened, Just like I was. Run! she'll send everyone in the town mad if she gets there like that. Just a voice and boots! Run! Run!
They ran. But Eliza had the start of them. Also when she ran on the grass they could not hear her footsteps and had to wait for the sound of leather on far-away gravel. Also she was driven by fear, and fear drives fast.
She went, it seemed, the nearest way, invisibly through the waxing moonlight, seeing she only knew what amid the glades and groves.
"I'll stop here; see you tomorrow," gasped Mabel, as the loud pursuers followed Eliza's clatter across the terrace. "She's gone through the stable yard."
"The back way," Gerald panted as they turned the corner of their own street, and he and Jimmy swung in past the water-butt.
An unseen but agitated presence seemed to be fumbling with the locked back-door. The church clock struck the half-hour.
"Half-past nine," Gerald had just breath to say. "Pull at the ring. Perhaps it'll come off now."
He spoke to the bare doorstep. But it was Eliza, dishevelled, breathless, her hair coming down, her collar crooked, her dress twisted and disordered, who suddenly held out a hand a hand that they could see; and in the hand, plainly visible in the moonlight, the dark circle of the magic ring.
"Alf a mo!" said Eliza's gentleman friend next morning. He was waiting for her when she opened the door with pail and hearthstone in her hand. "Sorry you couldn't come out yesterday."
"So'm I." Eliza swept the wet flannel along the top step. "What did you do?"
"I 'ad a bit of a headache," said the gentleman friend. "I laid down most of the afternoon. What were you up to?"
"Oh, nothing pertickler," said Eliza.
"Then it was all a dream, she said, when he was gone; "but it'll be a lesson to me not to meddle with anybody's old ring again in a hurry."
"So they didn't tell 'er about me behaving like I did," said he as he went "sun, I suppose like our Army in India. I hope I ain't going to be liable to it, that's all!"
Johnson was the hero of the hour. It was he who had tracked the burglars, laid his plans, and recovered the lost silver. He had not thrown the stone public opinion decided that Mabel and her aunt must have been mistaken in supposing that there was a stone at all. But he did not deny the warning letter. It was Gerald who went out after breakfast to buy the newspaper, and who read aloud to the others the two columns of fiction which were the Liddlesby Observer's report of the facts. As he read every mouth opened wider and wider, and when he ceased with "this gifted fellow-townsman with detective instincts which out-rival those of Messrs. Lecoq and Holmes, and whose promotion is now assured," there was quite a blank silence.
"Well," said Jimmy, breaking it, "he doesn't stick it on neither, does he?"
"I feel," said Kathleen, "as if it was our fault as if it was us had told all these whoppers; because if it hadn't been for you they couldn't have, Jerry. How could he say all that?"
"Well," said Gerald, trying to be fair, "you know, after all, the chap had to say something. I'm glad I " He stopped abruptly.
"You're glad you what?"
"No matter," said he, with an air of putting away affairs of state. "Now, what are we going to do today? The faithful Mabel approaches; she will want her ring. And you and Jimmy want it too. Oh, I know. Mademoiselle hasn't had any attention paid to her for more days than our hero likes to confess."
"I wish you wouldn't always call yourself 'our hero', said Jimmy; "you aren't mine, anyhow."
"You're both of you mine," said Kathleen hastily.
"Good little girl." Gerald smiled annoyingly. "Keep baby brother in a good temper till Nursie comes back."
"You're not going out without us?" Kathleen asked in haste.
"I haste away,
'Tis market day,"
"And in the market there
Buy roses for my fair.
If you want to come too, get your boots on, and look slippy about it."
"I don't want to come," said Jimmy, and sniffed.
Kathleen turned a despairing look on Gerald.
"Oh, James, James," said Gerald sadly, "how difficult you make it for me to forget that you're my little brother! If ever I treat you like one of the other chaps, and rot you like I should Turner or Moberley or any of my pals well, this is what comes of it."
"You don't call them your baby brothers," said Jimmy, and truly.
"No; and I'll take precious good care I don't call you it again. Come on, my hero and heroine. The devoted Mesrour is your salaaming slave."
The three met Mabel opportunely at the corner of the square where every Friday the stalls and the awnings and the green umbrellas were pitched, and poultry, pork, pottery, vegetables, drapery, sweets, toys, tools, mirrors, and all sorts of other interesting merchandise were spread out on trestle tables, piled on carts whose horses were stabled and whose shafts were held in place by piled wooden cases, or laid out, as in the case of crockery and hardware, on the bare flag-stones of the market-place.
The sun was shining with great goodwill, and, as Mabel remarked, "all Nature looked smiling and gay." There were a few bunches of flowers among the vegetables, and the children hesitated, balanced in choice.
"Mignonette is sweet," said Mabel.
"Roses are roses," said Kathleen.
"Carnations are tuppence," said Jimmy; and Gerald, sniffing among the bunches of tightly-tied tea-roses, agreed that this settled it.
So the carnations were bought, a bunch of yellow ones, like sulphur, a bunch of white ones like clotted cream, and a bunch of red ones like the cheeks of the doll that Kathleen never played with. They took the carnations home, and Kathleen's green hair-ribbon came in beautifully for tying them up, which was hastily done on the doorstep.
Then discreetly Gerald knocked at the door of the drawing-room, where Mademoiselle seemed to sit all day.
"Entrez!" came her voice; and Gerald entered. She was not reading, as usual, but bent over a sketch-book; on the table was an open colour-box of un-English appearance, and a box of that slate-coloured liquid so familiar alike to the greatest artist in watercolours and to the humblest child with a sixpenny paintbox.
"With all of our loves," said Gerald, laying the flowers down suddenly before her.
"But it is that you are a dear child. For this it must that I embrace you no?" And before Gerald could explain that he was too old, she kissed him with little quick French pecks on the two cheeks.
"Are you painting?" he asked hurriedly, to hide his annoyance at being treated like a baby.
"I achieve a sketch of yesterday," she answered; and before he had time to wonder what yesterday would look like in a picture she showed him a beautiful and exact sketch of Yalding Towers.
"Oh, I say ripping!" was the critic's comment. "I say, mayn't the others come and see?" The others came, including Mabel, who stood awkwardly behind the rest, and looked over Jimmy's shoulder.
"I say, you are clever," said Gerald respectfully.
"To what good to have the talent, when one must pass one's life at teaching the infants?" said Mademoiselle.
"It must be fairly beastly," Gerald owned.
"You, too, see the design?" Mademoiselle asked Mabel, adding: "A friend from the town, yes?"
"How do you do?" said Mabel politely. "No, I'm not from the town. I live at Yalding Towers."
The name seemed to impress Mademoiselle very much. Gerald anxiously hoped in his own mind that she was not a snob.
"Yalding Towers," she repeated, "but this is very extraordinary. Is it possible that you are then of the family of Lord Yalding?"
"He hasn't any family," said Mabel; "he's not married."
"I would say are you how you say? cousin sister niece?"
"No," said Mabel, flushing hotly, "I'm nothing grand at all. I'm Lord Yalding's housekeeper's niece."
"But you know Lord Yalding, is it not?"
"No," said Mabel, "I've never seen him."
"He comes then never to his chateau?"
"Not since I've lived there. But he's coming next week."
"Why lives he not there?" Mademoiselle asked.
"Auntie says he's too poor," said Mabel, and proceeded to tell the tale as she had heard it in the housekeeper's room: how Lord Yalding's uncle had left all the money he could leave away from Lord Yalding to Lord Yalding's second cousin, and poor Lord Yalding had only just enough to keep the old place in repair, and to live very quietly indeed somewhere else, but not enough to keep the house open or to live there; and how he couldn't sell the house because it was "in tale .
"What is it then in tail?" asked Mademoiselle.
"In a tale that the lawyers write out," said Mabel, proud of her knowledge and flattered by the deep interest of the French governess; "and when once they've put your house in one of their tales you can't sell it or give it away, but you have to leave it to your son, even if you don't want to."
"But how his uncle could he be so cruel to leave him the chateau and no money?" Mademoiselle asked; and Kathleen and Jimmy stood amazed at the sudden keenness of her interest in what seemed to them the dullest story.
"Oh, I can tell you that too," said Mabel. "Lord Yalding wanted to marry a lady his uncle didn't want him to, a barmaid or a ballet lady or something, and he wouldn't give her up, and his uncle said, 'Well then,' and left everything to the cousin."
"And you say he is not married."
"No the lady went into a convent; I expect she's bricked-up alive by now."
"In a wall, you know,: said Mabel, pointing explainingly at the pink and gilt roses of the wall-paper, "shut up to kill them. That's what they do to you in convents."
"Not at all," said Mademoiselle; "in convents are very kind good women; there is but one thing in convents that is detestable the locks on the doors. Sometimes people cannot get out, especially when they are very young and their relations have placed them there for their welfare and happiness. But brick how you say it? enwalling ladies to kill them. No it does itself never. And this lord he did not then seek his lady?"
"Oh, yes he sought her right enough," Mabel assured her; "but there are millions of convents, you know, and he had no idea where to look, and they sent back his letters from the post-office, and "
"Ciel!" cried Mademoiselle, "but it seems that one knows all in the housekeeper's saloon."
"Pretty well all," said Mabel simply.
"And you think he will find her? No?"
"Oh, he'll find her all right," said Mabel, "when he's old and broken down, you know and dying; and then a gentle Sister of Charity will soothe his pillow, and just when he's dying she'll reveal herself and say: 'My own lost love!' and his face will light up with a wonderful joy and he'll expire with her beloved name on his parched lips."
Mademoiselle's was the silence of sheer astonishment. "You do the prophecy, it appears?" she said at last. "Oh no," said Mabel; "I got that out of a book. I can tell you lots more fatal love-stories any time you like."
The French governess gave a little jump, as though she had suddenly remembered something.
"It is nearly dinner-time," she said. "Your friend Mabelle, yes will be your convivial, and in her honour we will make a little feast. My beautiful flowers put them to the water, Kathleen. I run to buy the cakes. Wash the hands, all, and be ready when I return."
Smiling and nodding to the children, she left them, and ran up the stairs.
"Just as if she was young," said Kathleen.
"She is young," said Mabel. "Heaps of ladies have offers of marriage when they re no younger than her. I've seen lots of weddings too, with much older brides. And why didn't you tell me she was so beautiful?"
"Is she?" asked Kathleen.
"Of course she is; and what a darling to think of cakes for me, and calling me a convivial!"
"Look here," said Gerald, "I call this jolly decent of her. You know, governesses never have more than the meanest pittance, just enough to sustain life, and here she is spending her little all on us. Supposing we just don't go out today, but play with her instead. I expect she's most awfully bored really."
"Would she really like it?" Kathleen wondered. "Aunt Emily says grown-ups never really like playing. They do it to please us.
"They little know," Gerald answered, "how often we do it to please them."
"We've got to do that dressing-up with the Princess clothes anyhow we said we would," said Kathleen. "Let's treat her to that."
"Rather near tea-time," urged Jimmy, "so that there'll be a fortunate interruption and the play won't go on for ever."
"I suppose all the things are safe?" Mabel asked.
"Quite. I told you where I put them. Come on, Jimmy; let's help lay the table. We'll get Eliza to put out the best china."
"It was lucky," said Gerald, struck by a sudden thought, "that the burglars didn't go for the diamonds in the treasure-chamber."
"They couldn't," said Mabel almost in a whisper; "they didn't know about them. I don't believe anybody knows about them, except me and you, and you're sworn to secrecy. This, you will remember, had been done almost at the beginning. I know aunt doesn't know. I just found out the spring by accident. Lord Yalding's kept the secret well."
"I wish I'd got a secret like that to keep," said Gerald. "If the burglars do know," said Mabel, "it'll all come out at the trial. Lawyers make you tell everything you know at trials, and a lot of lies besides."
"There won't be any trial," said Gerald, kicking the leg of the piano thoughtfully.
"It said in the paper," Gerald went on slowly, "'The miscreants must have received warning from a confederate, for the admirable preparations to arrest them as they returned for their ill-gotten plunder were unavailing. But the police have a clew.'"
"What a pity!" said Mabel.
"You needn't worry they haven't got any old clew," said Gerald, still attentive to the piano leg.
"I didn't mean the clew; I meant the confederate."
"It's a pity you think he's a pity, because he was me," said Gerald, standing up and leaving the piano leg alone. He looked straight before him, as the boy on the burning deck may have looked.
"I couldn't help it," he said. "I know you'll think I'm a criminal, but I couldn't do it. I don't know how detectives can. I went over a prison once, with father; and after I'd given the tip to Johnson I remembered that, and I just couldn't. I know I'm a beast, and not worthy to be a British citizen."
"I think it was rather nice of you," said Mabel kindly. "How did you warn them?"
"I just shoved a paper under the man's door the one that I knew where he lived to tell him to lie low."
"Oh! do tell me what did you put on it exactly?" Mabel warmed to this new interest. "It said: 'The police know all except your names. Be virtuous and you are safe. But if there's any more burgling I shall split and you may rely on that from a friend.' I know it was wrong, but I couldn't help it. Don't tell the others. They wouldn't understand why I did it. I don't understand it myself."
"I do, said Mabel: it's because you've got a kind and noble heart."
"Kind fiddlestick, my good child!" said Gerald, suddenly losing the burning boy expression and becoming in a flash entirely himself. "Cut along and wash your hands; you're as black as ink."
"So are you," said Mabel, "and I'm not. It's dye with me. Auntie was dyeing a blouse this morning. It told you how in Home Drivel and she's as black as ink too, and the blouse is all streaky. Pity the ring won't make just parts of you invisible the dirt, for instance."
"Perhaps," Gerald said unexpectedly, "it won't make even all of you invisible again."
"Why not? You haven't been doing anything to it have you?" Mabel sharply asked.
"No; but didn't you notice you were invisible twenty-one hours; I was fourteen hours invisible, and Eliza only seven that's seven less each time. And now we've come to "
"How frightfully good you are at sums!" said Mabel, awe-struck.
"You see, it's got seven hours less each time, and seven from seven is nought; it's got to be something different this time. And then afterwards it can't be minus seven, because I don't see how unless it made you more visible thicker, you know."
"Don't!" said Mabel; "you make my head go round."
"And there's another odd thing," Gerald went on; "when you're invisible your relations don't love you. Look at your aunt, and Cathy never turning a hair at me going burgling. We haven't got to the bottom of that ring yet. Crikey! here's Mademoiselle with the cakes. Run, bold bandits wash for your lives!"
It was not cakes only; it was plums and grapes and jam tarts and soda-water and raspberry vinegar, and chocolates in pretty boxes and pure, thick, rich cream in brown jugs, also a big bunch of roses. Mademoiselle was strangely merry for a governess. She served out the cakes and tarts with a liberal hand, made wreaths of the flowers for all their heads she was not eating much herself drank the health of Mabel, as the guest of the day, in the beautiful pink drink that comes from mixing raspberry vinegar and soda-water, and actually persuaded Jimmy to wear his wreath, on the ground that the Greek gods as well as the goddesses always wore wreaths at a feast.
There never was such a feast provided by any French governess since French governesses began. There were jokes and stories and laughter. Jimmy showed all those tricks with forks and corks and matches and apples which are so deservedly popular. Mademoiselle told them stories of her own schooldays when she was "a quite little girl with two tight tresses so", and when they could not understand the tresses, called for paper and pencil and drew the loveliest little picture of herself when she was a child with two short fat pig-tails sticking out from her head like knitting-needles from a ball of dark worsted. Then she drew pictures of everything they asked for, till Mabel pulled Gerald's jacket and whispered: "The acting!"
"Draw us the front of a theatre," said Gerald tactfully "a French theatre."
"They are the same thing as the English theatres," Mademoiselle told him.
"Do you like acting the theatre, I mean?"
"But yes I love it."
"All right," said Gerald briefly. "We'll act a play for you now this afternoon if you like."
"Eliza will be washing up," Cathy whispered, "and she was promised to see it."
"Or this evening," said Gerald "and please, Mademoiselle, may Eliza come in and look on?"
"But certainly," said Mademoiselle; "amuse yourselves well, my children."
"But it's you," said Mabel suddenly, "that we want to amuse. Because we love you very much don't we, all of you?"
"Yes," the chorus came unhesitatingly. Though the others would never have thought of saying such a thing on their own account. Yet, as Mabel said it, they found to their surprise that it was true.
"Tiens!" said Mademoiselle, "you love the old French governess? Impossible," and she spoke rather indistinctly.
"You're not old," said Mabel; "at least not so very, she added brightly, and you're as lovely as a Princess."
"Go then, flatteress!" said Mademoiselle, laughing; and Mabel went. The others were already half-way up the stairs.
Mademoiselle sat in the drawing-room as usual, and it was a good thing that she was not engaged in serious study, for it seemed that the door opened and shut almost ceaselessly all throughout the afternoon. Might they have the embroidered antimacassars and the sofa cushions? Might they have the clothes-line out of the washhouse? Eliza said they mightn't, but might they? Might they have the sheepskin hearth-rugs? Might they have tea in the garden, because they had almost got the stage ready in the dining-room, and Eliza wanted to set tea? Could Mademoiselle lend them any coloured clothes scarves or dressing-gowns, or anything bright? Yes, Mademoiselle could, and did silk things, surprisingly lovely for a governess to have.
Had Mademoiselle any rouge? They had always heard that French ladies No. Mademoiselle hadn't and to judge by the colour of her face, Mademoiselle didn't need it. Did Mademoiselle think the chemist sold rouge or had she any false hair to spare? At this challenge Mademoiselle's pale fingers pulled out a dozen hairpins, and down came the loveliest blue-black hair, hanging to her knees in straight, heavy lines.
"No, you terrible infants," she cried. "I have not the false hair, nor the rouge. And my teeth you want them also, without doubt?"
She showed them in a laugh.
"I said you were a Princess," said Mabel, "and now I know. You're Rapunzel. Do always wear your hair like that! May we have the peacock fans, please, off the mantelpiece, and the things that loop back the curtains, and all the handkerchiefs you've got?"
Mademoiselle denied them nothing. They had the fans and the handkerchiefs and some large sheets of expensive drawing-paper out of the school cupboard, and Mademoiselle's best sable paint-brush and her paint-box.
"Who would have thought," murmured Gerald, pensively sucking the brush and gazing at the paper mask he had just painted, "that she was such a brick in disguise? I wonder why crimson lake always tastes just like Liebig's Extract."
Everything was pleasant that day somehow. There are some days like that, you know, when everything goes well from the very beginning; all the things you want are in their places, nobody misunderstands you, and all that you do turns out admirably. How different from those other days which we all know too well, when your shoe-lace breaks, your comb is mislaid, your brush spins on its back on the floor and lands under the bed where you can't get at it you drop the soap, your buttons come off, an eyelash gets into your eye, you have used your last clean handkerchief, your collar is frayed at the edge and cuts your neck, and at the very last moment your suspender breaks, and there is no string. On such a day as this you are naturally late for breakfast, and everyone thinks you did it on purpose. And the day goes on and on, getting worse and worse you mislay your exercise-book, you drop your arithmetic in the mud, your pencil breaks, and when you open your knife to sharpen the pencil you split your nail. On such a day you jam your thumb in doors, and muddle the messages you are sent on by grown-ups. You upset your tea, and your bread-and-butter won't hold together for a moment. And when at last you get to bed usually in disgrace it is no comfort at all to you to know that not a single bit of it is your own fault.
This day was not one of those days, as you will have noticed. Even the tea in the garden there was a bricked bit by a rockery that made a steady floor for the tea-table was most delightful, though the thoughts of four out of the five were busy with the coming play, and the fifth had thoughts of her own that had had nothing to do with tea or acting.
Then there was an interval of slamming doors, interesting silences, feet that flew up and down stairs.
It was still good daylight when the dinner-bell rang the signal had been agreed upon at tea-time, and carefully explained to Eliza. Mademoiselle laid down her book and passed out of the sunset-yellowed hail into the faint yellow gaslight of the dining-room. The giggling Eliza held the door open before her, and followed her in. The shutters had been closed streaks of daylight showed above and below them. The green-and-black tablecloths of the school dining-tables were supported on the clothes-line from the backyard. The line sagged in a graceful curve, but it answered its purpose of supporting the curtains which concealed that part of the room which was the stage.
Rows of chairs had been placed across the other end of the room all the chairs in the house, as it seemed and Mademoiselle started violently when she saw that fully half a dozen of these chairs were occupied. And by the queerest people, too an old woman with a poke bonnet tied under her chin with a red handkerchief, a lady in a large straw hat wreathed in flowers and the oddest hands that stuck out over the chair in front of her, several men with strange, clumsy figures, and all with hats on.
"But," whispered Mademoiselle, through the chinks of the tablecloths, "you have then invited other friends? You should have asked me, my children."
Laughter and something like a "hurrah" answered her from behind the folds of the curtaining tablecloths.
"All right, Mademoiselle Rapunzel," cried Mabel; "turn the gas up. It's only part of the entertainment."
Eliza, still giggling, pushed through the lines of chairs, knocking off the hat of one of the visitors as she did so, and turned up the three incandescent burners.
Mademoiselle looked at the figure seated nearest to her, stooped to look more closely, half laughed, quite screamed, and sat down suddenly.
"Oh!" she cried, "they are not alive!"
Eliza, with a much louder scream, had found out the same thing and announced it differently. "They ain't got no insides," said she. The seven members of the audience seated among the wilderness of chairs had, indeed, no insides to speak of. Their bodies were bolsters and rolled-up blankets, their spines were broom-handles, and their arm and leg bones were hockey sticks and umbrellas. Their shoulders were the wooden crosspieces that Mademoiselle used for keeping her jackets in shape; their hands were gloves stuffed out with handkerchiefs; and their faces were the paper masks painted in the afternoon by the untutored brush of Gerald, tied on to the round heads made of the ends of stuffed bolster-cases. The faces were really rather dreadful. Gerald had done his best, but even after his best had been done you would hardly have known they were faces, some of them, if they hadn't been in the positions which faces usually occupy, between the collar and the hat. Their eyebrows were furious with lamp-black frowns their eyes the size, and almost the shape, of five-shilling pieces, and on their lips and cheeks had been spent much crimson lake and nearly the whole of a half-pan of vermilion.
"You have made yourself an auditors, yes? Bravo!" cried Mademoiselle, recovering herself and beginning to clap. And to the sound of that clapping the curtain went up or, rather, apart. A voice said, in a breathless, choked way, "Beauty and the Beast," and the stage was revealed.
It was a real stage too the dining-tables pushed close together and covered with pink-and-white counterpanes. It was a little unsteady and creaky to walk on, but very imposing to look at. The scene was simple, but convincing. A big sheet of cardboard, bent square, with slits cut in it and a candle behind, represented, quite transparently, the domestic hearth; a round hat-tin of Eliza s, supported on a stool with a night-light under it, could not have been mistaken, save by wilful malice, for anything but a copper. A waste-paper basket with two or three school dusters and an overcoat in it, and a pair of blue pyjamas over the back of a chair, put the finishing touch to the scene. It did not need the announcement from the wings, "The laundry at Beauty's home." It was so plainly a laundry and nothing else.
In the wings: "They look just like a real audience, don't they?" whispered Mabel. "Go on, Jimmy don't forget the Merchant has to be pompous and use long words."
Jimmy, enlarged by pillows under Gerald's best overcoat which had been intentionally bought with a view to his probable growth during the two years which it was intended to last him, a Turkish towel turban on his head and an open umbrella over it, opened the first act in a simple and swift soliloquy:
"I am the most unlucky merchant that ever was. I was once the richest merchant in Bagdad, but I lost all my ships, and now I live in a poor house that is all to bits; you can see how the rain comes through the roof, and my daughters take in washing. And ,"
The pause might have seemed long, but Gerald rustled in, elegant in Mademoiselle's pink dressing-gown and the character of the eldest daughter.
"A nice drying day," he minced. "Pa dear, put the umbrella the other way up. It'll save us going out in the rain to fetch water. Come on, sisters, dear father's got us a new wash-tub. Here's luxury!"
Round the umbrella, now held the wrong way up, the three sisters knelt and washed imaginary linen. Kathleen wore a violet skirt of Eliza s, a blue blouse of her own, and a cap of knotted handkerchiefs. A white nightdress girt with a white apron and two red carnations in Mabel's black hair left no doubt as to which of the three was Beauty.
The scene went very well. The final dance with waving towels was all that there is of charming, Mademoiselle said; and Eliza was so much amused that, as she said, she got quite a nasty stitch along of laughing so hearty.
You know pretty well what Beauty and the Beast would be like acted by four children who had spent the afternoon in arranging their costumes and so had left no time for rehearsing what they had to say. Yet it delighted them, and it charmed their audience. And what more can any play do, even Shakespeare's? Mabel, in her Princess clothes, was a resplendent Beauty; and Gerald a Beast who wore the drawing-room hearthrugs with an air of indescribable distinction. If Jimmy was not a talkative merchant, he made it up with a stoutness practically unlimited, and Kathleen surprised and delighted even herself by the quickness with which she changed from one to the other of the minor characters fairies, servants, and messengers. It was at the end of the second act that Mabel, whose costume, having reached the height of elegance, could not be bettered and therefore did not need to be changed, said to Gerald, sweltering under the weighty magnificence of his beast-skin:
"I say, you might let us have the ring back."
"I'm going to," said Gerald, who had quite forgotten it. "I'll give it you in the next scene. Only don't lose it, or go putting it on. You might go out all together and never be seen again, or you might get seven times as visible as anyone else, so that all the rest of us would look like shadows beside you, you'd be so thick, or ,"
"Ready!" said Kathleen, bustling in, once more a wicked sister.
Gerald managed to get his hand into his pocket under his hearthrug, and when he rolled his eyes in agonies of sentiment, and said, "Farewell, dear Beauty! Return quickly, for if you remain long absent from your faithful beast he will assuredly perish," he pressed a ring into her hand and added: "This is a magic ring that will give you anything you wish. When you desire to return to your own disinterested beast, put on the ring and utter your wish. Instantly you will be by my side."
Beauty-Mabel took the ring, and it was the ring.
The curtains closed to warm applause from two pairs of hands.
The next scene went splendidly. The sisters were almost too natural in their disagreeableness, and Beauty's annoyance when they splashed her Princess's dress with real soap and water was considered a miracle of good acting. Even the merchant rose to something more than mere pillows, and the curtain fell on his pathetic assurance that in the absence of his dear Beauty he was wasting away to a shadow. And again two pairs of hands applauded.
"Here, Mabel, catch hold," Gerald appealed from under the weight of a towel-horse, the tea-urn, the tea-tray, and the green baize apron of the boot boy, which together with four red geraniums from the landing, the pampas-grass from the drawing-room fireplace, and the india-rubber plants from the drawing-room window were to represent the fountains and garden of the last act. The applause had died away.
"I wish," said Mabel, taking on herself the weight of the tea-urn, "I wish those creatures we made were alive. We should get something like applause then."
"I'm jolly glad they aren't, said Gerald, arranging the baize and the towel-horse. "Brutes! It makes me feel quite silly when I catch their paper eyes."
The curtains were drawn back. There lay the hearthrug-coated beast, in flat abandonment among the tropic beauties of the garden, the pampas-grass shrubbery, the india-rubber plant bushes, the geranium-trees and the urn fountain. Beauty was ready to make her great entry in all the thrilling splendour of despair. And then suddenly it all happened.
Mademoiselle began it: she applauded the garden scene with hurried little clappings of her quick French hands. Eliza's fat red palms followed heavily, and then someone else was clapping, six or seven people, and their clapping made a dull padded sound. Nine faces instead of two were turned towards the stage, and seven out of the nine were painted, pointed paper faces. And every hand and every face was alive. The applause grew louder as Mabel glided forward, and as she paused and looked at the audience her unstudied pose of horror and amazement drew forth applause louder still; but it was not loud enough to drown the shrieks of Mademoiselle and Eliza as they rushed from the room, knocking chairs over and crushing each other in the doorway. Two distant doors banged, Mademoiselle's door and Eliza's door.
"Curtain! curtain! quick!" cried Beauty-Mabel, in a voice that wasn't Mabel's or the Beauty's. "Jerry those things have come alive. Oh, whatever shall we do?"
Gerald in his hearthrugs leaped to his feet. Again that flat padded applause marked the swish of cloths on clothes-line as Jimmy and Kathleen drew the curtains.
"What's up?" they asked as they drew.
"You've done it this time!" said Gerald to the pink, perspiring Mabel. "Oh, bother these strings!"
"Can't you burst them? I've done it?" retorted Mabel. "I like that!"
"More than I do," said Gerald.
"Oh, it's all right," said Mabel. "Come on. We must go and pull the things to pieces then they can't go on being alive."
"It's your fault, anyhow," said Gerald with every possible absence of gallantry. "Don't you see? It's turned into a wishing ring. I knew something different was going to happen. Get my knife out of my pocket this string's in a knot. Jimmy, Cathy, those Ugly-Wuglies have come alive because Mabel wished it. Cut out and pull them to pieces."
Jimmy and Cathy peeped through the curtain and recoiled with white faces and staring eyes. "Not me!" was the brief rejoinder of Jimmy. Cathy said, "Not much!" And she meant it, anyone could see that.
And now, as Gerald, almost free of the hearthrugs, broke his thumb-nail on the stiffest blade of his knife, a thick rustling and a sharp, heavy stumping sounded beyond the curtain.
"They're going out!" screamed Kathleen "walking out on their umbrella and broomstick legs. You can't stop them, Jerry, they re too awful!"
"Everybody in the town'll be insane by tomorrow night if we don't stop them," cried Gerald. "Here, give me the ring I'll unwish them."
He caught the ring from the unresisting Mabel, cried, "I wish the Uglies weren't alive," and tore through the door. He saw, in fancy, Mabel's wish undone, and the empty hall strewed with limp bolsters, hats, umbrellas, coats and gloves, prone abject properties from which the brief life had gone out for ever. But the hall was crowded with live things, strange things all horribly short as broom sticks and umbrellas are short. A limp hand gesticulated. A pointed white face with red cheeks looked up at him, and wide red lips said something, he could not tell what. The voice reminded him of the old beggar down by the bridge who had no roof to his mouth. These creatures had no roofs to their mouths, of course they had no "Aa 00 re o me me oo a oo ho el?" said the voice again. And it had said it four times before Gerald could collect himself sufficiently to understand that this horror alive, and most likely quite uncontrollable was saying, with a dreadful calm, polite persistence: "Can you recommend me to a good hotel?"
"Can you recommend me to a good hotel?" The speaker had no inside to his head. Gerald had the best of reasons for knowing it. The speaker's coat had no shoulders inside it only the cross-bar that a jacket is slung on by careful ladies. The hand raised in interrogation was not a hand at all; it was a glove lumpily stuffed with pocket-handkerchiefs; and the arm attached to it was only Kathleen's school umbrella. Yet the whole thing was alive, and was asking a definite, and for anybody else, anybody who really was a body, a reasonable question.
With a sensation of inward sinking, Gerald realized that now or never was the time for him to rise to the occasion. And at the thought he inwardly sank more deeply than before. It seemed impossible to rise in the very smallest degree.
"I beg your pardon" was absolutely the best he could do; and the painted, pointed paper face turned to him once more, and once more said: "Aa 00 re o me me oo a oo ho el?"
"You want a hotel?" Gerald repeated stupidly, "a good hotel?"
"A oo ho el," reiterated the painted lips.
"I'm awfully sorry," Gerald went on one can always be polite, of course, whatever happens, and politeness came natural to him "but all our hotels shut so early about eight, I think."
"Och em er," said the Ugly-Wugly. Gerald even now does not understand how that practical joke hastily wrought of hat, overcoat, paper face and limp hands could have managed, by just being alive, to become perfectly respectable, apparently about fifty years old, and obviously well known and respected in his own suburb the kind of man who travels first class and smokes expensive cigars. Gerald knew this time, without need of repetition, that the Ugly-Wugly had said: "Knock 'em up."
"You can't," Gerald explained; "they re all stone deaf every single person who keeps a hotel in this town. It's," he wildly plunged "it's a County Council law. Only deaf people are allowed to keep hotels. It's because of the hops in the beer," he found himself adding; "you know, hops are so good for ear-ache."
"I 0 wy ollo oo," said the respectable Ugly-Wugly; and Gerald was not surprised to find that the thing did "not quite follow him."
"It is a little difficult at first," he said. The other Ugly-Wuglies were crowding round. The lady in the poke bonnet said Gerald found he was getting quite clever at understanding the conversation of those who had no roofs to their mouths:
"If not a hotel, a lodging."
"My lodging is on the cold ground," sang itself unbidden and unavailing in Gerald's ear. Yet stay was it unavailing?
"I do know a lodging," he said slowly, "but ," The tallest of the Ugly-Wuglies pushed forward. He was dressed in the old brown overcoat and top-hat which always hung on the school hat-stand to discourage possible burglars by deluding them into the idea that there was a gentleman-of-the-house, and that he was at home. He had an air at once more sporting and less reserved than that of the first speaker, and anyone could see that he was not quite a gentleman.
"Wa I wo oo oh," he began, but the lady Ugly-Wugly in the flower-wreathed hat interrupted him. She spoke more distinctly than the others, owing, as Gerald found afterwards, to the fact that her mouth had been drawn open, and the flap cut from the aperture had been folded back so that she really had something like a roof to her mouth, though it was only a paper one.
"What I want to know," Gerald understood her to say, "is where are the carriages we ordered?"
"I don't know," said Gerald, "but I'll find out. But we ought to be moving," he added; "you see, the performance is over, and they want to shut up the house and put the lights out. Let's be moving."
"Eh ech e oo-ig," repeated the respectable Ugly-Wugly, and stepped towards the front door.
"Oo urn oo," said the flower-wreathed one; and Gerald assures me that her vermilion lips stretched in a smile.
"I shall be delighted," said Gerald with earnest courtesy, "to do anything, of course. Things do happen so awkwardly when you least expect it. I could go with you, and get you a lodging, if you'd only wait a few moments in the in the yard. It's quite a superior sort of yard, he went on, as a wave of surprised disdain passed over their white paper faces not a common yard, you know; the pump," he added madly, "has just been painted green all over, and the dustbin is enamelled iron."
The Ugly-Wuglies turned to each other in consultation, and Gerald gathered that the greenness of the pump and the enamelled character of the dustbin made, in their opinion, all the difference.
"I'm awfully sorry," he urged eagerly, "to have to ask you to wait, but you see I've got an uncle who's quite mad, and I have to give him his gruel at half-past nine. He won't feed out of any hand but mine." Gerald did not mind what he said. The only people one is allowed to tell lies to are the Ugly-Wuglies; they are all clothes and have no insides, because they are not human beings, but only a sort of very real visions, and therefore cannot be really deceived, though they may seem to be.
Through the back door that has the blue, yellow, red, and green glass in it, down the iron steps into the yard, Gerald led the way, and the Ugly-Wuglies trooped after him. Some of them had boots, but the ones whose feet were only broomsticks or umbrellas found the open-work iron stairs very awkward.
"If you wouldn't mind," said Gerald, "just waiting under the balcony? My uncle is so very mad. If he were to see see any strangers I mean, even aristocratic ones I couldn't answer for the consequences."
"Perhaps, said the flower-hatted lady nervously, "it would be better for us to try and find a lodging ourselves?"
"I wouldn't advise you to," said Gerald as grimly as he knew how; "the police here arrest all strangers. It's the new law the Liberals have just made," he added convincingly, "and you'd get the sort of lodging you wouldn't care for I couldn't bear to think of you in a prison dungeon," he added tenderly.
"I ah wi oo er papers," said the respectable Ugly-Wugly, and added something that sounded like "disgraceful state of things."
However, they ranged themselves under the iron balcony. Gerald gave one last look at them and wondered, in his secret heart, why he was not frightened, though in his outside mind he was congratulating himself on his bravery. For the things did look rather horrid. In that light it was hard to believe that they were really only clothes and pillows and sticks with no insides. As he went up the steps he heard them talking among themselves in that strange language of theirs, all oo's and ah's; and he thought he distinguished the voice of the respectable Ugly-Wugly saying, "Most gentlemanly lad," and the wreathed-hatted lady answering warmly: "Yes, indeed."
The coloured-glass door closed behind him. Behind him was the yard, peopled by seven impossible creatures. Before him lay the silent house, peopled, as he knew very well, by five human beings as frightened as human beings could be. You think, perhaps, that Ugly-Wuglies are nothing to be frightened of. That's only because you have never seen one come alive. You must make one any old suit of your father s, and a hat that he isn't wearing, a bolster or two, a painted paper face, a few sticks and a pair of boots will do the trick; get your father to lend you a wishing ring, give it back to him when it has done its work, and see how you feel then.
Of course the reason why Gerald was not afraid was that he had the ring; and, as you have seen, the wearer of that is not frightened by anything unless he touches that thing. But Gerald knew well enough how the others must be feeling. That was why he stopped for a moment in the hall to try and imagine what would have been most soothing to him if he had been as terrified as he knew they were.
"Cathy! I say! What ho, Jimmy! Mabel ahoy!" he cried in a loud, cheerful voice that sounded very unreal to himself.
The dining-room door opened a cautious inch.
"I say such larks!" Gerald went on, shoving gently at the door with his shoulder. "Look out! what are you keeping the door shut for?"
"Are you alone?" asked Kathleen in hushed, breathless tones.
"Yes, of course. Don't be a duffer!"
The door opened, revealing three scared faces and the disarranged chairs where that odd audience had sat.
"Where are they? Have you unwished them? We heard them talking. Horrible!"
"They're in the yard," said Gerald with the best imitation of joyous excitement that he could manage. "It is such fun! They're just like real people, quite kind and jolly. It's the most ripping lark. Don't let on to Mademoiselle and Eliza. I'll square them. Then Kathleen and Jimmy must go to bed, and I'll see Mabel home, and as soon as we get outside I must find some sort of lodging for the Ugly-Wuglies they are such fun though. I do wish you could all go with me."
"Fun?" echoed Kathleen dismally and doubting.
"Perfectly killing," Gerald asserted resolutely. "Now, you just listen to what I say to Mademoiselle and Eliza, and back me up for all you're worth.
"But," said Mabel, "you can't mean that you're going to leave me alone directly we get out, and go off with those horrible creatures. They look like fiends."
"You wait till you've seen them close," Gerald advised. "Why, they re just ordinary the first thing one of them did was to ask me to recommend it to a good hotel! I couldn't understand it at first, because it has no roof to its mouth, of course."